It was warm when I stepped off the plane. Like most Asian airports at night, the Kathmandu terminal was dimly lit and sparsely populated. I filled out a visa application and watched as it, along with my passport and receipt for $100 visa fee, was passed down the line from one immigration officer to the next. They joked and laughed among themselves, largely disregarding me, and plopped my passport down at the end of the counter without so much as looking up.
Having collected my checked pack from the baggage claim, I walked out to the taxi waiting area to look for a driver with my name on a plaque. I doubled back 2 or 3 times to make sure I hadn’t missed him, all the while politely declining a long list of services offered to me by other drivers. I finally stopped walking, not quite sure what to do next since my driver was nowhere to be seen, and I was suddenly surrounded by no less than 12 Nepali men eager to help, all talking at once in a mixture of English and Nepali. Four of them were policemen and all were shorter than me. I hesitated, but since I didn’t have a cell phone that worked yet, I finally acquiesced and pulled out my list of contact numbers for the policeman who offered his cell phone. He held it up and the rest of the men gathered around behind him, all studying my paper. I learned long ago not to expect any level of privacy in Asia, and was somewhat thankful that neither my passport no., social security number or bank account were printed on that sheet.
I was the center of intense curiosity as I tried to get in touch with Hom. But the connection was so bad, I couldn’t even understand when he finally answered. Four times I started to talk before the call was dropped almost immediately.
They kept asking me what hotel or tour company I was with, and though I imagined it might help find my driver, I was hesitant to respond because I’d just come in with a tourist visa, under which volunteer work is strictly prohibited. I finally confided in one young man, who persistently asked me to identify some kind of company or individual. “I don’t know what the company is called in Nepal, but in the U.S. it’s called IFRE – they planned the whole trip for me.”
“Oh! IFRE! You’re a volunteer! I know your driver, his name is Mr. Bhagwan and he’s my friend. I’ll call him now.”
When the call was made & Mr. Bhagwan’s location confirmed, I was glad I took the risk of accepting help from a stranger.
Once in the micro-van with Mr. Bhagwan, I was surprised to find that they drive on the left side of the road in Nepal, like in India. Though it was dark, I could make out lots of trash alongside the roads. As we emerged from the outskirts of the city and made our way into the city, an overpowering smell of urine penetrated the vehicle. We dodged various trucks, cars, and motorcycles, nearly missing two cows that were laying, totally relaxed, in the middle of what we’d call a highway in the U.S.
Traffic started to build behind one car up ahead. It stood out because it was a nice, full size Jeep – not a miniature vehicle like all the rest. As we passed it, I noticed the red diplomatic plates and had a flashback to being picked up from the airport in Russia just last February. Of course traffic was building behind that car. I know from experience that diplomatic cars are the only ones who even attempt to respect traffic laws. Arriving in Nepal as a diplomat would include a certain sense of security; the scene of my airport pickup in St. Petersburg was literally me stepping away from the customs desk, taking one step into the arrival hall, being approached immediately by a consulate representative, and whisked away immediately into an atmosphere where everyone spoke English and everything about the American way of life was understood and appreciated. I didn’t really even have the opportunity to get outside my comfort zone that first day. How different my experience in Nepal has been already! I’ll always remember the response I got when I said to the policeman who tried to help me, “Okay sir, thank you so much for your offer to help, but I really don’t have any money. I couldn’t pay for your services.”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am, don’t worry! This is Nepal! You are safe in Nepal and the people are very friendly. No need to pay. Never pay police, never pay. We here to help you.”
And that they did.